By Louise Arbour
South Sudan’s independence on Saturday will in some sense mark the welcome end of one of the most devastating conflicts of recent times. When decades of hostilities between North and South concluded with the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, several million people had already died as a result of the civil war, and millions more had lost their homes. As a culmination of that peace deal, independence would seem to be the last chapter of the story.
It is, however, anything but.
Saturday’s formal separation may have been an inevitable and even necessary step, but these two states will be tied together for many years to come. Trying to work through outstanding disagreements, many of them already violent, will require difficult negotiations, political savvy, and carefully considered international engagement to ensure both North and South develop into peaceful and stable states.
At this point, the signs do not look particularly good. Both sides have violated the 2005 agreement, and escalating tensions have sparked conflict in critical border areas. In May, Khartoum’s forces launched an attack on the contested town of Abyei.
Even more worrisome, there is wide-scale fighting between Northern and Southern forces in the border state of Southern Kordofan. Reportedly some 360,000 people have been displaced over the past six months, more than half in the last month.
The North, in particular the ruling National Congress Party (N.C.P.), is moving boldly both to assert control over Northern territory and to improve its negotiating position vis-à-vis the South on the post-independence arrangements. Of these, probably the most important to the North concerns oil revenue sharing, since Khartoum will lose a majority share of its primary income source, the petroleum being found predominantly in the South.
In any case, revenue sharing, border demarcation, the status of southern military units from northern regions, as well as future arrangements on citizenship and natural resource management will likely remain points of contention for years to come, and could trigger large-scale violence.
While both North and South will have to work closely together on these issues to avoid renewed war, each also faces extremely difficult internal challenges. In Khartoum, the ruling party’s rank and file are increasingly discontent. Despite austerity measures, the government is confronting a serious budget deficit and spiraling inflation, and it is not able to pay all salaries. The N.C.P.’s security-dominated policies are alienating huge swaths of Sudanese.
Northern opposition parties and rebel groups (from Darfur and elsewhere) are trying to position themselves for post-July, but they are weakened by the decision of some of them to enter into unilateral negotiations with the N.C.P. Unless the opposition forces present a much more unified front, it is quite likely that the N.C.P. will continue to stymie attempts to bring about badly needed government reforms.
Southern leaders meanwhile have to switch gears from the solidarity of the liberation struggle to the more mundane, though more divisive, tasks of running a democratic country. The signs are not encouraging. The new draft transitional constitution includes several red flags, including an amendment giving the president power to dismiss democratically elected governors as he pleases.
The leading party in the South, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (S.P.L.M.), has to open up political space — both inside and outside the party — to lay the foundations for a more inclusive multiparty landscape.
The international community also has an important role. Realizing that localized conflict in the new border zone will likely continue or even escalate if left to fester, it has to carry on acting as an impartial mediator, fact-checker and arbitrator, all the while dealing with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
To deal with Southern Kordofan, external actors need to get leaders back to the negotiating table with sufficient political will to contain the violence, including a cease-fire and new security arrangements for the transitional states. The initiative undertaken by the African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan, led by Thabo Mbeki, is a good first step. It helped lead to an agreement on Abyei, which is a welcome deescalation, but the international community can only preserve the status quo — both Khartoum and Juba need to make the hard decisions and compromises necessary for peaceful coexistence.
Southern independence will also mean that the international community must recalibrate its relationship with the S.P.L.M. and avoid the tendency to overlook its abuses and constrictions of political space.
If there is a single message for all parties it is surely “inclusion.” The leaders of North and South need to understand the broad spectrum of peoples and interests in their new polities and work hard to bring them in under their respective new roofs. And the international community must sustain its involvement and support to ensure that both North and South develop into peaceful and viable states.
Louise Arbour is president of the International Crisis Group.
Also read our article about how Ethiopia and other neighbouring states are eyeing tempting business opportunities in South Sudan